A Russia Resurgent

Publication date
Friday, 30.05.2003

Anders Aslund

New York Times.com, May 28, 2003


WASHINGTON Last month Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain traveled to Moscow to discuss postwar Iraq with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Although the war was effectively over, Mr. Putin remained skeptical of its aims. "Where is Saddam?" Mr. Putin asked at a press conference after the meeting. Where, he continued, were the weapons of mass destruction, "if they really existed?"

This weekend, President Bush is scheduled to meet with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg. He might face a similarly rude awakening.

On 9/11, President Putin was among the first foreign leaders to phone President Bush. During the war against Afghanistan, he allowed United States military planes to fly over Russian territory, accepted American bases in Central Asia, and shared intelligence in spite of strong opposition fr om the former Soviet security establishment.

The Bush administration responded by accepting that the Chechen resistance was linked to international terrorism — but that was it. President Bush promised to work to persuade Congress to revoke the obsolete Jackson-Vanik legislation, which threatens economic sanctions against Russia because of emigration policies not followed since the Soviet era, but so far he has failed. In the year following the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration abandoned the ABM treaty with Russia and then supported the enlargement of NATO.

Mr. Putin accepted these decisions graciously, but he received nothing in return. In the Russian debate, he was increasingly compared with the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev, who was said always to have given in to the Americans without getting anything.

As the war in Iraq approached, Russia initially took a back seat. While not supporting Saddam Hussein, it wanted to secure some commercial interests in Iraq, like oil concessions, financial claims and trade contracts. But Russia enjoyed too little attention from the United States. In the first quarter of this year, no government official more senior than an under secretary of state visited Moscow.

Meanwhile, public opinion in Russia, as in Germany and France, evolved against the war. The Russian Communist Party benefited — a fact that Mr. Putin, an avid reader of opinion polls, could not ignore in an election year. With no results to show from his pro-American policy, he joined the French-German position against the war. (Besides, Germany is twice as large an export market for Russia as the United States.)

So wh ere does this leave American-Russian relations on the eve of the summit meeting? The scales of influence, if not the balance of power, have shifted.

The United States has relatively little to offer Mr. Putin. After years of discussion about American-Russian energy development, the Russian oil sector is doing well on its own. Russia's attempt to enter the World Trade Organization has, unfortunately, encountered domestic resistance and no longer tops the meeting's agenda. And after four years of annual economic growth averaging about 6 percent, the Russian economy requires no financial aid.

Russia, in contrast, has gained some leverage. As one of Iraq's main creditors, Russia belongs to the so-called Paris Club, which renegotiates government debt of countries in default. For Iraq to recover quickly, its debt of about $380 billion must be reduced by about three-quarters. But Russia, which never got any debt forgiven itself, is reluctant to grant such relief and could complicate international financing of Iraq's recovery.

Russia's export of nuclear technology to Iran could also prove challenging for the United States. The United States has long tried to persuade Russia to stop the practice. Russia has refused, partly because it would hurt its nuclear industry and partly because it sees Iran as the most predictable and reasonable country in the region.

Still, President Putin has no interest in a bad relationship. In his speech to the nation on May 16, he emphasized Russia's opposition to terrorism and to weapons of mass destruction as two key principles of Russian foreign policy. Clearly, there are issues on which Russia and the United States can cooperate — North Korea, for example. And both the United States Senate and the Russian Duma have ratified the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which requires both countries to reduce their nuclear weapons.

Economically, Russia also has much to offer. A scramble is under way for Russia's large undervalued private oil companies, and American oil companies may want to participate in a major venture. Increasing its imports of Russian oil will also benefit United States foreign policy.

For much of the last decade, the United States was able to dictate the terms of its relations with Russia. The war against Iraq showed that Russia can resist America's demands — and that it can be strengthened in the process. It is this strength that Mr. Bush will meet in St. Petersburg.




Anders Aslund,
A senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
Author of "Building Capitalism: The Transformation of the Former Soviet Bloc"

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